The story of a child born two thousand years ago in a humble stable still has power to inspire hope in insecure places in the world today.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it might be like for the world’s most marginalised and persecuted people to hear our well-known Catholic prayers.
Take, for example, the Salve Regina prayer, and its words, ‘To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve/To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’.
I try to imagine how this prayer might resonate with a Christian huddling in their home as soldiers take control of their village, or surviving precariously in a refugee camp, or making a dangerous crossing by boat in the hope of finding a safe place to live. Reflecting on the words in this way helps me appreciate the universal power of Jesus’ story; how it shines for us, even in the darkest moments.
Launching Caritas’s global campaign for migrants in October, Pope Francis said hope is not a virtue for ‘people with full stomachs’. It’s only the poor who can really teach us what hope means.
‘That’s why the poor are always the first carriers of hope’, he said. ‘To come into the world, God needed them: needed Joseph and Mary, needed the shepherds of Bethlehem.
‘On the night of the first Christmas, there was a world that slept… but the humble were preparing in their concealment the revolution of goodness.
‘They were all poor, some floating just above the threshold of survival, but were rich in the most precious good that exists in the world, that is, the desire to change.’
The threshold of survival
Those who read Sarah Sona's winning Young Journalist Award story will be familiar with at least one Christian family’s experience of persecution. Sarah described what it was like for her family to live in an area under the control of ISIS.
‘In 2014 everything changed. ISIS gangs wanted to kill all people in Qaraqosh (her home town)’, she wrote. ‘If we didn’t change our religion to Muslim, we would have to pay money to remain Christian. This was such a bad time for people in Qaraqosh.’
Sarah and her family fled to Jordan, and they were eventually among thousands who have been resettled in Australia. For them and many other Christians, this Christmas will be one of exile, much like the holy family’s exile into Egypt.
Aid to the Church in Need estimates that since 2003 the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.5 million to around 300,000. In Syria, the number of Christians is estimated to have fallen by half since 2010 – from 10 per cent of the population to around 5 per cent.
‘At times it seems it is always winter, never Christmas in Syria’, Caritas International President Cardinal Luis Tagle said last year.
However, in some parts of the country, people are starting to return to their homes, as areas occupied in the civil war are re-taken by government forces.
‘The situation in Aleppo (in Syria) is certainly better today’, Franciscan Father Ibrahim Alsabagh told Aid to the Church in Need in June this year.
‘There is security in the streets and in the churches. But at the same time we are beginning to suffer the consequences of war – the poverty, the shortages of food and other essential family needs, and numerous signs of trauma as a result of the war.’
Nour Hassam, 12 (pictured), lives with her family in a flat in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family’s own home was destroyed in the war that devastated Syria. Now, after four years taking refuge in a nearby town, they have returned to rebuild their lives.
‘Before, my whole family lived in this neighbourhood’, Nour told Caritas International. ‘I used to love going round to my cousins’ house. Now they are scattered all over the country, or abroad. I really miss my family.’
The revolution of goodness
In Iraq and Syria, efforts are being made to help support families to rebuild their lives. Catholic journalist John Allen describes these efforts as ‘Dunkirk in reverse’. Where that famous World War 2 effort was about evacuating hundreds of thousands people from danger, this effort is about providing hundreds of thousands of Christians with support.
‘The bulk of public humanitarian aid in Iraq and Syria is delivered through major refugee camps, either in places such as Erbil, or to camps in Jordan and Lebanon. However, Christians typically don’t go to those camps, fearing infiltration by Jihadist loyalists and thus further exposure to persecution and violence’, notes Allen.
Instead, aid to these groups needs to be channelled through churches and religious institutions, places often ignored by non-religious aid agencies, but not by Catholic organisations.
Aid to the Church in Need this year launched The Ninevah Plains Reconstruction Project. Its aim is to help around 100,000 families driven from their homes by ISIS in 2014 to rebuild their lives, and to preserve Christianity’s presence in the region. The project has the support of the Vatican.
‘The conflicts and tensions of recent years represent a risk, not only for the survival of Christians, but also for the very possibility that the Middle East can be a place of coexistence between peoples belonging to different religious and ethnic groups’, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, told a conference in September.
‘Beyond the rebuilding of cities, villages and homes, there is the more burdensome obligation of reconstructing Iraqi society. Here Christians have a specific mission: to be artisans of peace, reconciliation and development.’
Christians today, like their ancient forebears, remain a minority in the Middle East. Their persistence amid persecution, war, and exile, call to mind so much of the Biblical stories of the people of Israel, and the life of Christ.
As we celebrate Christmas in our own churches this year, it is well worth keeping in mind that we are celebrating in unity with communities and people living in places like Iraq and Syria, many of whom will be returning to places that have been laid waste by war.
On the day after Christmas last year, Pope Francis paid tribute to the persecuted Christians in Iraq who had celebrated the feast in their destroyed cathedral.
‘Theirs is an example of fidelity to the Gospel’, he said. ‘Despite the trials and the dangers, they bear witness with courage to their belonging to Christ.’
Help support people in the Middle East this Christmas:
Image courtesy Caritas International.